Newly declassified US government documents reveal fresh details of how American officials welcomed a 1960s genocide targeting political opponents in Indonesia that left more than half a million men, women and children dead.
The 39 documents, from the United States Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, were released on Tuesday by the National Declassification Center, a division of the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). They confirm that US officials were fully aware of the scale and severity of the 1965-66 mass imprisonment, torture, rape and extermination by the Indonesian military and allied paramilitary groups and Islamist militias of communists, socialists, labor unionists, teachers, students, artists, activists and others viewed as threats by the ascendant US-backed military dictator Suharto.
Suharto (prominent Indonesians often go by mononymic names) rose to power after a US-backed military coup overthrew Sukarno, the progressive hero of Indonesia’s independence struggle against Dutch colonialism. At the time, Indonesia was home to the world’s third-largest communist party and the Lyndon B. Johnson administration saw Suharto as a natural Cold War ally despite his authoritarian savagery.
It was already known that the US Embassy in Jakarta provided Suharto’s security forces with “shooting lists” of thousands of suspected communists who were rounded up or hunted down before being tortured and then massacred en masse. Time reported at the time on what it called “one of the most savage mass slayings of modern political history,” with rivers “literally clogged with bodies.” In a 1990 Washington Post interview, former embassy official Robert J. Martens called the kill lists “a big help to the army,” adding that “they probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad.”
The newly released documents reveal US officials were thrilled when right-wing generals imposed martial law in Jakarta and severely repressed civil liberties as they attempted to crush leftist and other opposition. A December 21, 1965 cable from embassy first secretary Mary Louise Trent to the State Department estimating that 100,000 civilians had been exterminated referred to the slaughter as a “fantastic switch which has occurred over 10 short weeks.”
Some of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organizations, and to a lesser degree Catholics, were enthusiastic participants in some of the worst mass murders of the 1965-66 genocide. A November 1965 report from embassy political affairs officer Edward E. Masters approvingly noted that armed youth groups were solving the “main problem” of how to house and feed Community Party of Indonesia (PKI) prisoners through mass executions. “Many provinces appear to be successfully meeting this problem by executing their PKI prisoners, or killing them before they are captured, a task in which Moslem youth groups are providing assistance,” the report said, citing 62,000 murders in the province of Central Java alone.
Washington turned a blind eye to the genocide, lavishing Suharto with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and arms even after, as the declassified documents show, embassy officials cabled that “we frankly do not know whether the real [death toll] figure is closer to 100,000 or 1,000,000.” Estimates of the number of Indonesians killed during the genocide range from 500,000 to well over one million.
A decade later, after East Timor, located at the far eastern tip of the Indonesian archipelago, won its independence from Portugal, President Gerald Ford and his secretary of state Henry Kissinger traveled to Jakarta to give Suharto the green lightfor what would become the second Indonesian genocide in as many decades. A brutal invasion and quarter-century occupation followed, supported by successive US administrations. By 1989, US-backed Indonesian forces had killed some 200,000 East Timorese out of a total population of around 700,000 through massacres, starvation and disease.
The new revelations come amid a surge in anti-communist rhetoric in Indonesia, where as in the United States communism is often invoked as a bogeyman by right-wing leaders facing political or economic difficulties. The 20th century genocides remain a taboo subject among Indonesians, with government officials often denying the severity of the slaughter or claiming it was justified in the fight against communism. However, the National Commission on Human Rights, the International People’s Tribunal on Crimes Against Humanity in Indonesia 1965 (IPT) and documentary films including The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence have spurred debate and discussion about the events of 1965-66.
In 2014, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced a Sense of the Senate Resolution condemning the first Indonesian genocide and urging the United States to acknowledge the “indispensable” role it played in it. Udall’s resolution also urged Indonesia to create a truth and reconciliation commission to examine the genocide, and called on the US government to declassify many of the same documents that have just been released to the public.
Human rights advocated hailed the new release. “The mass killings of 1965-66 are among the world’s worst crimes against humanity, and our country’s darkest secret,” Indonesian human rights attorney Veronica Koman told the Associated Press. “The 1965-66 survivors are all very old now, and I’m afraid that they will not see justice before they die. Hopefully with these cables coming to light, the truth can emerge and perpetrators can be held accountable.”